Preserving our national inheritance requires public policy to get the family right.


At the outset of his first inaugural address as governor of California, Ronald Reagan made the vital observation that “freedom is a fragile thing and it’s never more than one generation away from extinction.” The beliefs, values, habits, and capacities necessary to sustain a prosperous democratic republic are not some innate feature of human nature, as both the historical record and conditions in much of the modern world affirm. We can never take for granted the need for successive generations to develop those traits anew. How does this happen?

Here, Reagan was mistaken. Freedom “is not ours by way of inheritance,” he continued, rather, “it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation.” Empirically, this is untrue. Notwithstanding Thomas Jefferson’s infamous exhortation that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants” and his fear that “god forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion,” most American generations have indeed inherited their citizenship in a free and prosperous country. The American people do not expend their effort building from the same starting point as their predecessors; the charge is to preserve and improve upon what they have inherited.

Reagan’s emphasis on continuity and tradition in one sentence sits awkwardly beside his denial of it in the next. It is emblematic of the dissonance between conservatism and libertarianism underlying the American right-of-center’s thinking, coalition, and policy agenda. The libertarian conception of individuals as free agents controlling their own fates is diametrically opposed to the conservative view that sees individuals entangled in a dense web of obligations to, and relationships with, those who came before, those with whom they must co-exist, and those who will follow. Reagan’s insight about freedom’s fragility, and the importance of ensuring its persistence into the next generation, is perhaps the strongest argument for the conservative outlook.

“Conservatives are well-attuned to the ways that liberal anti-poverty efforts can deepen poverty by eroding the imperatives of responsible family formation. We should carefully examine our own projects through the same lens.”

To complete Reagan’s thought, then, the point cannot be that freedom “is not ours by way of inheritance,” but rather that we cannot bequeath it like one. The traits underpinning self-government, the market economy, and the free society do not pass biologically like a genetic sequence or legally like a last will and testament. Transmitting them onward is each generation’s greatest responsibility and a process that demands much fighting and defending if young people are to be raised into responsible adults and woven into the nation’s social, economic, and political fabric. Only one institution is capable of the task: the family.

For this reason, the family is antecedent to both the freedom of liberal democracy and the growth of market capitalism. An emphasis merely on advancing freedom will harm its own cause if it undermines the family in the process, which is likely if only liberty and not obligation is celebrated. Likewise, an emphasis on economic growth, if it is allowed to disrupt the family, which the market tends to do unless the community imposes constraints. Conservatives are well-attuned to the ways that liberal anti-poverty efforts can deepen poverty by eroding the imperatives of responsible family formation. We should carefully examine our own projects through the same lens.

Policymakers have failed this test in recent decades. The assumption seems to have been that so long as we generate sufficient growth and fund government benefits that meet everyone’s needs, the family will flourish. That has proved wrong. From 1960 to 1996, GDP more than tripled. The safety net expanded twice as fast. Yet as Kay Hymowitz observes in her introductory essay, the number of births to married couples fell by half. That generation is now coming of age in an America beset by failed political institutions, declining trust and seemingly unbridgeable divides, slowing innovation and investment, and left-behind communities. Whether we have the capacity to fight for and defend our inheritance is, perhaps for the first time in American history, fairly in doubt.

* * *

“Family Policy” has an odd and cramped definition in American politics. On the right-of-center, it tends to mean altering the tax code in various ways that might privilege child-rearing and reduce so-called “marriage penalties.” Miscellaneous public-relations attempts at “marriage promotion” emerge from time to time. On the left-of-center, its focus is on keeping parents in the workforce: a series of plans like “paid leave” (until you get back to work) and “free childcare” (so you can get back to work) that are most popular with people who don’t actually have children and that aim to minimize the incursion of family on the real tasks of economic growth and gender parity.

If family formation and stability, child-bearing and -rearing, are foundational to the national interest, and to the outcomes our politicians promise like liberty, equality, and prosperity, then they should get the same treatment and attention that policymakers give the economy. Whether the policy in question concerns housing, infrastructure, education, immigration, trade, taxation, investment, health care, crime, poverty, or the environment, we are accustomed to asking what the effect will be on growth, income, and jobs. The government tracks and reports quarterly progress on such measures to the decimal-point. We could, and should, ask the same questions about marriage and fertility, and await each month’s release of data showing our progress.

“If family formation and stability, child-bearing and -rearing, are foundational to the national interest, and to the outcomes our politicians promise like liberty, equality, and prosperity, then they should get the same treatment and attention that policymakers give the economy.”

At first, the family-policy mindset will seem almost nonsensical. Which infrastructure investments boost fertility the most, which education policies boost marriage rates, what kind of questions are those, how would we answer them, and what could we possibly do with the information? Yet our confusion should be what strikes us as strange. In what sort of society would we ask those questions about economic growth and design policy accordingly, while ignoring them with respect to the family? We have been taught that economics is a “science” whose formulas and models should guide public policy, but economists invariably disagree on what effects a policy will have, and the effects of most policies are measured in fractions of a percentage point.

Surely family policy could have at least as substantial an effect. Conservatives casually dismiss the prospect of government moving the needle on family outcomes—“that’s a culture problem,” goes the refrain. Yet the major legislative achievement of Republicans’ two years with control of the White House and Congress was to spend $1.7 trillion for an indeterminate increase in long-run gross domestic product likely to be less than one percent. Perhaps we should dismiss growth as “a culture problem” and try making some progress elsewhere. How much would marriage rates rise if colleges admitted men and women in equal numbers? How many more children would be born if rush-hour commutes were twenty minutes shorter?

* * *

Developing these muscles will take time. Much research and analysis will be required on understanding problems and crafting solutions. Policymakers will have to grow accustomed to the idea that the family is more than a talking point; it is a legitimate focus of public concern on par with topics like liberty, equality, and prosperity, for which we have such extensive political vocabulary. And then they must contemplate tradeoffs accordingly: a policy that increases economic growth at the expense of family stability is not necessarily a good one; a policy that invades some personal freedoms but enables child-rearing may advance the common good.

Home Building lays the groundwork for such discussions. In the initial set of essays, our authors argue for a proudly normative and assertive vision of the family as a vital social institution on which the public should render judgments and policymakers should act. First, The American Conservative’s Helen Andrews makes the case for supporting the family at all, and the Manhattan Institute’s Kay Hymowitz describes what happened to marriage when we did not. Patrick T. Brown, former policy advisor to Senator Mike Lee and the Joint Economic Committee, explains the advantages of marriage and the two-parent household for child-rearing, and then Lyman Stone, of the Institute for Family Studies and the American Enterprise Institute, shows that helping families have more children is not only in our national interest, but in families’ personal interests as well.

Next, we will turn to the question of economic support for families. In the past week, debate over the idea of a “child allowance” has reached fever pitch. My essay, co-authored with American Compass research director Wells King, evaluates arguments for and against sending money to families and offers a concrete proposal of our own. Sean Speer, who served as senior economic advisor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper when Canada implemented its own child allowance, describes the lessons learned in our neighbor to the north. Other commentators offer reflections on the strongest and weakest cases for and against this approach.

Finally, we widen the lens and consider the full range of policies under discussion today. Neil Gilbert, Professor of Social Welfare and Social Services at the University of California-Berkeley, surveys policy programs from abroad, while the Niskanen Center’s Samuel Hammond explores opportunities beyond traditional “family policy” that could make a difference. Michael Lind describes how the social contract and the welfare state could be reframed to place family at their center. And scholars from institutions across the right-of-center outline proposals for pro-family approaches to a range of policy challenges.

Alongside these essays, we will publish data from a survey conducted last month that illuminate the present picture of the American family as well as the priorities and preferences of the American people. Among its striking findings: Just one-in-four Americans report that they or their families are living the American Dream. Among those still unmarried after age 35, that share falls to one-in-eight; they are twice as likely to say they are struggling to get by and worried for their future.

Nearly half of parenting-age Americans say they have fewer children than they would like, most often because they cannot afford to. The vast majority agree that government should do more to support families—almost always because “families are falling behind and need help” or “more assistance to families would improve the lives of children.” Our response to this challenge will determine what we leave the next generation to defend, and whether we will have equipped them to defend it.

Oren Cass
Oren Cass is chief economist at American Compass.
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